My Students: Writing as Fast as They Can

I want to introduce the two students who won the Total Word Count Challenge in my novel-writing classes: Sarah Chaney and Kayla Weiss. Each of these young women wrote over 42,000 words this semester, or about 3,500 words a week for 12 weeks. What’s significant about this is that they were only required to turn in 2,250 words per week—an assignment called “Weekly Words” which I talk about in detail here—but they both exceeded that amount…and then some.


I’d say that half of the students who took my class this semester walked in the door with a definite idea for a novel they very much wanted to write, and Sarah and Kayla were certainly in that group.

I remember at the beginning of the term, Sarah came to my office and said how much she was looking forward to the course. For years, she’d been trying to figure it out on her own, and as much as she liked her writing classes, she hadn’t learned the one thing she thought she’d learn as a creative writing major: how to approach the writing of a novel.

Unlike past semesters, this term I broke the process of writing a novel down into its component parts (you can check out my syllabus here), organized them into weekly units, and taught from a series of power point lectures.

I saw light bulbs going off over Sarah’s head quite often, but I noticed that Kayla hardly ever looked at me at all during my lectures. She just kept typing furiously. I asked her once, “Are you listening to me?” and she assured me yes, that she was taking notes. “The things you’re talking about help me understand what I need to do with my novel, and I want to write it all down while it’s in my head.” I believe her, but it would be hard to blame her for writing her novel during what I hoped were inspiring novel-writing lectures.

What were their novels about?  

All my students had to write jacket copy and query letters for their works-in-progress, and this is what Sarah and Kayla’s novels are about.

Sarah Chaney

Sarah Chaney: 42,911 words

Novel: From My Perspective

All Mati wants is to graduate from high school without doing the one thing her mother fears the most: getting pregnant. She wants to go to college, get married, start a life and then have a baby, which is the exact opposite of what her mother, Amy, did.

Amy works three jobs to support Mati and struggles to find time to write, refusing to give up her dream to be a writer. Years ago, her family told her they’d cut her off if she had the baby, and as much as she loves her daughter, it’s hard sometimes to wonder if she did the right thing. All she wants is to save Mati from having to make the same hard decision.

But when Mati is assaulted and becomes pregnant, all bets are off. Mati’s attempt to hide her pregnancy (and rape) is short-lived, and she finds her future and the future of her child dictated by her mother’s ultimatum. At the same time, Amy’s doctor delivers horrible news, which causes her to rethink the life she left behind and the dwindling possibility to live her own life.

Now mother and daughter must untangle what it means to be a family in a world that emphasizes self-discovery and individuality. Can Mati figure out what she wants for herself, and will Amy be able to accept the unexpected ways in which life unfolds?

Kayla Weiss

Kayla Weiss: 42,008 words

Novel: Give Me A Sign

James Warren is a father, a husband, a brother, and above all a Shadowhunter – a special breed of human descended from angels. Six years ago, James was leading a normal life with a normal job, completely unaware of the secret life he was meant to lead.

The war between good and evil continues, with more and more Hunters falling in the line of duty. Alongside his brother, Will, his wife, Annie, and his guardian angel, Mel, James is the key to the Apocalypse. Now he must pick one side or the other. Good or evil.

Now, after the death of a Hunter very near and dear to his heart, James slips into a dark depression, locking himself away from the rest of the Hunters in the farmhouse, plotting his own path in the Apocalypse. With one last swig from his bottle of whiskey, he walks out of the farmhouse, with no intention of returning, to face his destiny. Which side will James choose?

I’m proud of ALL my students this semester, but I thought I’d highlight these two for doing exactly what I asked them to do: start writing a novel as fast and as well as they could.

Runners up

ENG 407-003

  • Ryn Bailey: 35,630 words
  • Phoebe Blake: 35,244
  • Jordan Martich: 30,064
  • Maye Ralston: 29,433


  • Kellie Suttle: 37,634
  • Mo Smith: 35,118
  • Tyler Fields: 34,780
  • (so close! let’s call it a tie)
  • Erynn Ellsworth: 32,720 and Sarah Tadsen: 32,365


  1. Kara says:

    Congrats to your students! What a fantastic thing to have gotten under their belts while still undergrads. I hope they keep working on their books even after the end of the semester. And Cathy, thanks for sharing so much of your process with those of us who hope to teach similar classes one day!

    • Cathy Day says:

      I hope they keep working, too. One “carrot” that I dangle before them is the Midwest Writers Workshop, which takes place here in Muncie in late July. Finish your book, I say, and then come to this conference and pitch it to agents and editors. That has made a big difference to them, knowing that there’s a place they can go that is already familiar to them to take that next step in becoming a writer.

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